If Twitter seemed to get momentarily better this past August, that’s because the platform banned Alex Berenson, a once impressive investigative journalist who had torched his reputation with a series of inflammatory false claims about COVID-19. Before the pandemic, he’d been a contrarian voice on the legalization of cannabis, which he believes can turn users into psychotically violent criminals, and even managed to find a gullible audience for this theory in the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell. But the virus truther stuff — the disease is overblown, masks don’t work, vaccines are dangerous — didn’t play as well, and led to The Atlantic crowning Berenson the “wrongest man” of the entire crisis. Then came his Twitter suspension.
Like almost everyone who eventually gets kicked off the bird app, Berenson has what we call poster’s brain: the sort of mindset that will simply not allow you to log off, no matter how much you humiliate and debase yourself. This monomaniacal determination has led other banned users to pursue reinstatement with extreme measures — maybe you recall far-right conspiracy theorist Laura Loomer handcuffing herself to Twitter’s New York office building in 2018 as a protest stunt. Berenson, however, has opted for the more civil approach: a big fat lawsuit.
Suing a social media giant that tossed you for breaking its rules — invoking your right to shitpost on their service, more or less — is a legal maneuver with precedent. None of the prior cases hold much promise for Berenson, though: The typically right-wing plaintiffs never win. As recently as October, Donald Trump lost his own bid to return to Twitter, after a Florida federal court decided he would have to file a complaint in the Northern District of California, where the tech company is based. Berenson’s suit follows a broad template rejected there and elsewhere, asserting that Twitter violated the First Amendment, which it can’t actually do, since it’s not a state actor, and only the government can be said to illegally restrict free speech.
His lawyers therefore wrote that Twitter censored him on behalf of the Biden administration. They also seek to get around Section 230, a law that allows web services the latitude to block or screen objectionable content, by defining Twitter as a “common carrier” under California law, and so obliged to “carry” his tweets as, for example, a telecom is compelled to connect phone calls.
These gimmicky tactics seem poised for failure too. One particular irony is that it’s not Section 230 that ultimately guarantees Twitter the power to moderate discussion and boot the dangerous grifters — it’s the First Amendment. The text of the suit even acknowledges this. So Berenson is, in a sense, asserting that only he, and not the defendant, is afforded the Constitutional right to free expression.
Rarely have we seen such a perfect distillation of the shitposter’s credo: I get to say whatever I want, and the owners of the forum where I’m speaking have to sit there and take it. What’s even funnier is that this legal team have set down, in a formal document, a model of how the shitposter is incentivized to double down on their worst takes to increase engagement — a model that reflects poorly on Twitter, of course, but is far more revealing of Berenson’s inclination to mislead ordinary people for his own benefit.
The suit brags that one of Berenson’s earliest tweets about COVID-19, in March 2020, was retweeted by Tesla CEO and fellow posting addict Elon Musk; that as he continued to challenge the official narrative on the disease, his audience grew from 7,000 followers to 84,000; and that in April of 2020, his tweets drew a cumulative 175 million impressions. Such figures are meant to support a dubious contention that Twitter significantly profited off Berenson’s account, but they’re also there for the sake of ego. In its 70 pages, the complaint is repeatedly at pains to stress Berenson’s importance as a public figure — that he is, in fact, essential to the national discourse.
Here a judge might reasonably note that Berenson, while no longer on Twitter, is still publishing through a Substack, where anyone in need of his perspective is welcome to find it. The document several times mentions the other places Berenson can peddle his ideas, and indeed currently does, hilariously noting that before his ban, he “invested” all his time in Twitter instead of these “alternate platforms” or “writing books and articles for publication elsewhere.” In other words, he blames Twitter for the fact that he was shitposting too hard on their app to pursue literally any other form of professional advancement, so he’s owed financial restitution.
This is the finest illustration we have of the compulsion to spew harmful nonsense on the internet, not to mention the potential cost of that behavior, and its roots in irrational thinking. The charges are set dressing for a single petulant demand: “Mods, unlock my account or else.”
Also, what is a frivolous lawsuit but an especially wasteful shitpost? Berenson’s is unlikely to ever get near a jury, though maybe that wasn’t the point — it just had to take up space. In that futile gesture, and the utter mess of the arguments, Berenson has actually elevated the craft that earned him his exile from a preferred channel for self-promotion. No character limits, no replies, no fact-checks, only pure shit, straight from the source.
If anything, it proves he doesn’t need Twitter to do his “job.” Hey, Alex, why not book another appearance on your pal Tucker Carlson’s show? Pretty great ratings, from what I’ve heard! Sooner or later, you’ll have to accept that Twitter is done with you, and move on. God knows why you’re trying to come back for more.